S&H Opera Review

Wagner Tristan & Isolde Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 30 October 00

This new production gained a lot of first night hostility and critical damnation. It may have settled by the last night, for which S&H finally acquired standing places, these remaining the hottest tickets in town despite bad reviews (in the event, there were numerous empty seats, following a 'tornado' in Southern England). The main opprobrium was for Herbert Wernicke's direction, designs and lighting, especially directed against the moving boxes which kept the lovers separate throughout. Our interest was fired by having seen and admired this director's Elektra at Munich, starring London's Isolde, Gabriele Schnaut.

The designs, celebrated by Fiona Maddocks (The Observer) alone, emphasised the impossibility of this most famous of illicit loves. As the potion began to work and Tristan & Isolde acknowedged their mutual feelings there was a poignant moment with their separate stages moving away from each other, leaving an unbridgeable gulf. This set the scene for the whole conception, in which the lovers were often separated by walls, never touched and were living in each other but only in their imaginations - at one moment whilst Isolde sang of her adoration, we could see only an upside-down reflection of Tristan in the shiny black marbled floor between their two areas!

Most surprising, for those who had read the dismissive reviews, was to discover how huge were these two 'boxes'; a very considerable feat of imagination to conceive them and then of engineering to achieve their smooth interlocking movements upon the stage. Long sharp-ended, slender metal poles served to evoke images of masts and spears in their abstract patterning. Less convincing were some of the costumes, the natty gear for the sailors frankly flippant, and the King's dignity compromised by his less than regal attire in dull black, with the same tie and tie-clip for both his appearances - Isolde had been provided with a brilliant red royal robe - and. The programme indicates that Wernicke had responsibility for all aspects of the production.

We found all the singing fully adequate and more, good enough to banish for the duration comparisons with legendary performers of yore. The separate boxes made Kurwenal's role as go-between in the first act uncommonly plausible, and Alan Titus maintained a strong presence as Tristan's loyal supporter and right hand man. Jon Frederic West would have been more hampered by his size if the lovers had communed in closer proximity. He rose to the strenuous demands of the third act impressively, and his movements were expressive and within character.

Gabriele Schnaut [left photo Neill Libbert] looked well throughout and was in fine voice for the first two acts, but seemed to have tired (or 'gone off the boil' after a long wait?) only in the culminating Liebestod, in which she was slightly below pitch and under-powered for the climax. During the first two acts I was entranced by her varied delivery, quiet and tender, forceful and dramatic by turns. She looked the part throughout, moved well and was helped by the red backgrounds of her 'box' and the subtle lighting, criss-crossed by shadows from the 'spears', or what they were. Petra Lang characterised Brangane strongly and made the very best of role; her lower register was notably rich, as was that of Gabriele Schnaut (formerly a mezzo) as Isolde. From high above the ROH orchestra under Bernard Haitinck was resplendent, with the strings especially gorgeous. Usually the dynamics were kept fairly low and there were no problems for us with projection of the voices. There were some mighty climaxes and that towards the end of the Liebestod was overwhelming.

A memorable Tristan & Isolde. Radio 3's recording van outside and a forest of microphones inside were much in evidence and a live broadcast is scheduled on 9 November

Peter Grahame Woolf

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